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Victory Day

May 9, 1993: I rose early and rode the metro into the city center for the "meeting" of the "Russian Party" on Palace Square, half expecting some sort of violence. Only a week ago in Moscow blood was spilled and a young policemen killed when a communist mob attacked a police cordon. Video footage on the evening news showed professional looking mobsters wading into an echelon of militia to drag victims out to beat them. Young and healthy mobsters brought their own rubber batons dubbed "democratizers" during the Gorbachev era, to beat the police. Other news clips showed women standing unmolested, screaming like banshees to simulate terror and panic. Opposition leaders were conspicuously absent from the melee. The whole event looked professionally organized. Repeated airing of the incident enraged the nation and stifled sympathy for the communists. Many considered it their greatest setback in recent years. All last week communist leaders promised "something" much worse for the 9th, but it never happened. Anticipated calamities in Russia, like forecasted blizzards in New England, don't always come to fruition.

In the early morning old men in uniforms or suits strolled up and down Nyevski with chests covered in medals. Under the enormous arch leading into Palace Square a lone trumpeter blew a doleful blues rift, as a toothless elderly man stopped me and asked for money. Not waiting for my response, the man showed me a shiny silver coin, and asked about the current exchange rate for Finnmarks. I told him I had no idea, and handed him some scrip. Behind thick lenses his eyes fired up as he began prattling something about ten years spent in the camps. At first I worried he had found my donation too small, and his camp story would end with some sort searing condemnation of skinflint foreigners who hand out rubles instead of hard currency. Then I heard the word Vorkulag.

"You were in Vorkulag? I was in Vorkuta just two weeks ago!"

"Oh yah! How are the guys up there?" he queried.

"Well ugh, the camps have been closed for some time now."

Once on the square I encountered two decorated veterans arguing with an equally decorated third man. I stopped to eavesdrop at a distance. The first two men supported the old regime, and attacked the third for supporting the democrats, bringing his patriotism and valor into question.

"Lenin was a genius! You people are scum, and should be shot. Down with Yeltsin's regime!"

The lone defender wearing an armband with the Russian tricolor calmly remarked with a smile, "I know I will never see it. I know my children may not even see it, but I just want my grand children to live in a normal, healthy society."

A perky older lady walked up to defend the President. Another well dressed, white haired veteran in a suit and leather sandals hovered nearby for a while, and then walked up to scream some words in praise of Stalin.

The old lady chuckled, "And this one's a Stalinist! Oh heaven help us."

In a typical display of Soviet gallantry, the white haired Stalinist went right for the lady, screaming in her face. When the attacker saw me photographing the exchange, he departed the scene quickly.

Around the tall marble Alexander Column at the center of the square, a group of youths collected, dressed in homemade gray, white, and black camouflage uniforms, with "Team Special" printed in English on shoulder patches. One or two youths in home made Sam Brown belts and close cropped hair resembled figures from Nazi propaganda posters. Others just looked like rejects from a Heavy Metal concert. One boy climbed up on the monument to unfurl the Russian nationalist tricolor of white, gold and black. A short man with intense, deep-set eyes and a beard passed out leaflets, muttering political, boilerplate mantras. An aging crowd of the faithful gathered, as the curious moved in to get a look.

An older man in military decorations called out, "You should be waving the flag with the hammer and sickle boy. Look at yourself. There's mother's milk still on your lips, and you're already dabbling in politics. Why you haven't even served yet."

Taking a melodramatic drag on his cigarette while looking away, the tough retorted, "All in good time old man. Don't you worry."

One elderly woman in a shabby dress said to her friend, "Wait a minute Vera, maybe they'll hand out free vodka." A few foreign tourists in shorts and German sandals milled around to take a few snapshots of the demonstrators, and then went off to visit the Hermitage Art museum, former Winter palace of the Tsars, on the other side of the square.

On the steps of the column a procession of men spoke through a megaphone praising the defenders of the motherland. They vowed to carry on the struggle against the new imperialist colonizers from America and their puppet dictator, Yeltsin. One of the more articulate and virulent speakers was a young man in his twenties. This perhaps was the most disturbing aspect of the day. Most people in the West spent the first half of the eighties waiting for age and entropy to do their work on the fossils in the Kremlin, and bring change to Russia. Today we are confronted with the fact that time is no longer the threat to Russian despots it once was.

Having heard my fill of hate and paranoia, I left the square. On a back street near the Admiralty building I passed a man who's decorations would have made Brezhnev green with envy. He walked with medals covering both sides of his faded naval tunic, a daughter on one arm, and a granddaughter on the other. Unable to restrain myself, I stopped the man and asked to take a picture. One part of me worried that the gentleman might get offended and give me a lecture on the evils of Western colonization. Instead, he blushed, grinned, and asked what I wanted to do a thing like that for. At his daughter's urging, he buttoned his tunic, pulled his family closer, and posed proudly. Asking me where I was from, I answered America.

The veteran beamed, "Our ally! Have a happy holiday, and peace be with you."

 

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